Caution, uncertainty and strong desire to return students to the classroom without compromising their health or that of their teachers were among the emotions that permeated a lengthy discussion by Denair Unified School District trustees Thursday night about what it will take to reopen campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bottom line: It may be December or January before school officials, employees and parents feel confident that a limited amount of on-campus instruction each week can replace the distance-learning format Denair and hundreds of other California districts have used since March.
“These are not easy decisions,” said Trustee Carmen Wilson. “It’s the logistics of them. If we say yes, it takes a lot of resources to execute and can we do that?”
Before trustees weighed in with their opinions, Superintendent Terry Metzger presented an outline of the health situation in Stanislaus County, which strongly influences what schools can and can’t do. Today, the county remains in Purple tier denoting “widespread” COVID cases. It is expected to move into the Red (“substantial”) tier as soon as next week.
Elementary campuses only may apply for a waiver and open under the Purple tier. Denair has not yet sought a waiver for Denair Elementary Charter Academy, but that may be moot. Once any county has been in the Red tier for 14 consecutive days, all campuses theoretically could open under a hybrid model that blends two days of on-campus instruction with three days of distance learning. Rules would limit how many students can be in class together and numerous safety precautions would be required.
Metzger and other superintendents meet regularly with Stanislaus County public health officials, who expect that elementary schools will be the first to reopen under various hybrid models. High schools and middle schools, Metzger said, are far more likely to remain under the distance-learning model through most, if not all, of this school year because of the scheduling complexities.
Metzger has met with parents as well as staff to discuss what reopening looks like. She said they share a similar goal.
“The vast majority of parent and employee feedback at the input sessions was, ‘We want kids back in school AND we want to do it safely for all,’ ” Metzger told trustees.
The superintendent also said the respondents appreciate Denair’s “thoughtful and cautious” approach so far. Many felt that students and teachers are “in a groove” when it comes to distance learning.
“Most people want to return to normal,” Metzger said. “They want case numbers to be low. They want no safety precautions to be needed. And they want kids to be back in school five days a week. That’s not realistic today. We just can’t do that at this point.”
Given Stanislaus County’s health status, Metzger said the earliest DECA could reopen would be Oct. 27. But since trustees deferred any reopening decision until their Nov. 12 meeting, sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas or after the first of the year is more realistic.
Before any reopening, the district will ask parents to register their children to participate in a hybrid program or stay 100% in distance learning. The results of that process will dictate how teachers will be assigned at each grade level, Metzger said. It’s possible that some students who have been with one teacher to this point will have a different instructor.
“I would like to see what families say and get them registering for one plan or the other,” said Trustee Kathi Dunham-Filson. “I think the waiver is a moot point at this point. … I think Denair needs to move forward, whatever that looks like.”
Metzger showed photos of DECA classrooms set up for a hybrid system, with a teacher and no more than 14 students together at once. Half the class would attend Monday and Tuesday, and the other half Thursday and Friday. Every classroom would be sanitized every day. Extraneous furniture and materials would be cleared. Students would have to remain at their desks during class. Nothing could be shared. Face coverings would be required. Students couldn’t play with each other during recess.
Because teachers also would have to provide online lessons each day to those students not on campus, classroom time would be limited to three or four hours. Metzger worries about the workload for teachers in a hybrid model.
“I’m concerned that hybrid model is not sustainable for our staff in the long term. I’m very worried about that,” she said.
Metzger has other concerns. Denair still is waiting for cleaning supplies that have been back-ordered for months. Will the district – which contracts with Storer Transportation of Modesto for bus service – be able to get students to and from campus? With bus capacity severely limited, she said cost could be a problem for DUSD and that parents may have to drop off and pick up their children.
What happens if a teacher catches a cold or gets the flu? Metzger said Stanislaus County has a limited number of substitute teachers to call. Child care also is an issue for many teachers, especially those with children who also are learning from home right now. “Teachers can’t teach from home while their kids are distance learning,” Metzger said. “Teachers are innovators, but that continues to be a concern.”
And there is potentially a huge cost associated with testing teachers for COVID – as much as $20,000 every two months, Metzger said. The state is not likely to require students to be tested, she said. None of the $5 point-of-care COVID tests the federal government sent to the state will be given to school districts, she said.
Though schools have been closed since mid-March, Metzger said there have been some students on Denair campuses the past few months participating in what she calls “learning pods.” They allow small numbers of students in special education, those who have technology access issues at their homes, are English learners or who are enrolled in hands-on courses like welding to meet with teachers – as long as face coverings are worn and other safety precautions are followed.
Trustee Ray Prock Jr. pointed to learning pods as a practical way to reintegrate students on campus in controlled ways.
“It’s great to be cautious, but at some point in time, we’re going to have to implement a plan and then adjust,” he said. “January is a long way off. If we can add learning pods and do it safely and appropriately, good. We should be trying to attain the highest saturation of people on campus that we can.”
Board President Crystal Sousa urged a go-slow approach, even if it means Denair is one of the last districts to reopen.
“We can’t avoid planning for hybrid,” she said. “Even if we take this slow and cautiously, even if we say we’re going to open with a hybrid model in January, we need to plan now. … I don’t think it’s necessarily the best thing that other districts are coming back Nov. 2 and their kids are just getting the hang of (distance learning) and it’s flu season and then they have to shut down again.”
By the Nov. 12 board meeting, Metzger said she will work with parents and staff members to formalize a hybrid learning plan. She also said the district will submit an elementary waiver so that, even if it’s not needed now, it could be in place if Stanislaus County’s health statistics force it back into the Purple tier at some point in the future.
“Many of our community members don’t want us to be in open while in the Purple tier,” Metzger said. “But the numbers in the county could be from Modesto or Ceres and not in Denair.”
Added Wilson: “Just because we have a waiver, we don’t have to open. If Modesto was high and Denair was low, we could. But if Denair was just as high as everyone else, we wouldn’t.”